Let's face it, it aint easy being U2 - the little Irish band who became self-anointed spokesmen for anthemic, idealist rock'n'roll. Well, the individual members may still retain that idealism, but it's hard to claim allegiance to innocence when you've become more than just a band, but a brand - indeed, one need only muse upon the (some would say unholy) alliance U2 made with media giant Apple as evidence of a corporate sensibility that never existed in their early days. God only knows how much money the band took in to proffer Songs Of Innocence as a free iTunes download prior to its official physical release, but you can bet it wasn't small change.
U2 went so far as to prostitute themselves via a 60-sec commercial for iTunes, where the band is seen performing in that psychedelic, image-painted style Apple used to promote it's iPod - and in case you missed the subtlety, the ad ends with a raised arm (as if in protest-mode) clutching an Apple device. Now, I am not against free-enterprise, nor do I expect U2 to take some sort of poverty vow in order that they might justify the proletarian platform they find themselves hoisted upon. It's just that, the buzz prior to it's release suggested that the band might be revisiting an earlier time in their careers (as well as personally) to bring back that spark of youthful idealism that ignited their 80's work.
Songs Of Innocence opens with "The Miracle Of Joey Ramone", a crunchy, guitar-driven anthemic number that apparently uses the leader of 70's punk as some kind of metaphor for pure, simple yet radical expression: though the song does not utilize a punk approach (to which I ask, "Why not?") it does open the album as an aggressive, spirited kickoff. But is it just me, or does that bottom-heavy, drum-propelled chorus seem just a teeny, weeny bit like......I don't know, maybe........The Black Keys? Sure does to these ears, and I doubt the influence was merely subliminal - their last release, No Line On The Horizon contained the Coldplay-informed "Unknown Caller."
So if this is a nostalgic, sincere look back to youth and its affiliated optimism, how come the sonic signposts aren't antecedent as well? Again I ask - is U2 worried about alienating some in their fanbase by actually writing an honest-to-goodness punk song? Instead of using Joey Ramone as an emblematic personality, why didn't they look to someone more invested in their ideals? Was Billy Bragg unreachable? Bragg is a truer spokesman on many levels (after all, "put me in a wheelchair and take me to the show" isn't exactly anarchistic) than Joey Ramone. It almost seems like Bono and Co. feel the need to name-check more easily recognizable rock stars for major cred. "Every Breaking Wave"'s leading riff feels like a postscript from '87's Joshua Tree disc, that is, until that anthemic, perfunctory chorus that was the template for 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind telegraphs itself.
All That You Can't Leave Behind was a game-changer for U2, and not just because it yielded their biggest pop hit, "Beautiful Day", drawing in admirers who'd rather be kidnapped than put through U2's back catalog. It became the mold for which U2 could feel a certain degree of commercial affirmation: poetic-but-not-too-deep lyricism, FM radio-tailored riffs and that soft verse/hard chorus combo that means guaranteed airplay. But there's more than a scintilla of irony to hear how much the sonic lines between U2 and Coldplay have blurred - at times, you can't help but think "Yeah, if Chris Martin did "Iris (Hold Me Close)" it would sound exactly like that."
With the exception of the Brian Wilson-esque "California (There Is No End To Love)" and the nearly-vintage U2 of old on "Volcano", there's not a lot of gambling being done here creatively-speaking. Dave "The Edge" Evans is doing what he does best - delivering the right riff or passage for effect, either accentuating Bono's occasionally audacious lyric ("Volcano" and "Raised By Wolves") or adding a touch of gentle piano for nuance, but still I don't hear him really challenging himself. And this is the man that told Rolling Stone his biggest influences were Television's Tom Verlaine and Magazine's John McGeoch. If he were channelling either here, the results would be a lot more compelling. "Sleep Like A Baby Tonite" starts off with an ominous synth line that promises Kraftwerk-ian experimentation, but it's just a tease for another boilerplate U2 exercise.
And I gotta say Bono, though I've never considered your lyrics as trenchant as say, a Leonard Cohen (and certainly not as idiosyncratic as Magazine's Howard Devoto), some of these couplets could rival Tom Petty in the profundity department. I hope this album is commercially successful for U2 - at least as successful as ATYCLB or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Here's hoping your next release either authentically replicates the quixotic semblance of October or Boy, or the take-no-prisoners, risky excess of Zooropa or Pop. You're all millionaires - if not now, when?
I guess Tom Wolfe was right, after all.